Politics & Other Mistakes: Party crasher

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Could Maine’s next governor be None of the Above?

At first glance, the answer appears to be no. Between Democratic incumbent Gov. Janet Mills and Republican challenger and former Gov. Paul LePage, there isn’t much ideological space for a third-party or independent contender. 

Disaffected liberals might dream of mounting a challenge to the moderate Mills, but they know that draining off 5-10 percent of her votes would amount to guaranteeing a LePage victory. That’s too scary a prospect for the donkey party’s left wing to risk it.

Moderate members of the GOP (and like-minded independents) may long for a return to center-right governance without LePage’s socially divisive bombast, racist comments, and lingering stench of Trumpism. But they know they can’t beat the ex-guv in the Republican primary, and in the general election, such an independent candidate might be as likely to draw away votes from Mills as LePage.

The Greens, Libertarians, and other irrelevant factions may luck into getting one of their own on the ballot, but as voters have repeatedly demonstrated, no one cares.

That seems to eliminate all the possibilities. Except one.

If a would-be governor could find an issue of great public concern that would set him or her (or them) apart from both LePage and Mills, that mythical candidate might be able to build a coalition of diverse factions that would boost a long-shot contender into the 30-40 percent range that would give them a shot at winning.

Keep in mind that the gubernatorial election isn’t decided by ranked-choice voting, because the state Constitution forbids it. In a tightly contested three-way race, a candidate with barely more than a third of the vote could win the Blaine House.

The question is whether there’s an issue that would galvanize enough of the electorate to give an independent a reasonable chance at victory. The answer is a very shaky maybe.

Central Maine Power Co. and its project to build a power line from Quebec through the western Maine woods to supply electricity to Massachusetts are hugely unpopular. Both Mills and LePage support the company and the treeless corridor. Neither favors a public takeover of CMP or a ban on foreign-owned companies (such as Hydro Quebec, which is supplying the juice for CMP’s corridor) spending money on political advertising in Maine.

It’s just possible that an outsider candidate could shock LePage and Mills in November 2022 with the campaign slogan “Screw CMP.”

For that to happen, this mysterious independent would have to be well financed. This desperado would have to be charismatic, energetic, and not so deranged that it shows on TV. And this disruptor would need serious organizational skills in order to assemble a grassroots network of volunteers to counteract the two major parties’ statewide apparatuses.

Independents James Longley and Angus King pulled off this feat, winning the governorship in 1974 and 1994, respectively. But both faced much blander opposition than the current slate.

Nevertheless, Longley and King demonstrated it’s possible to upend the establishment candidates. All it took was the right message, a lot of money, and a ton of luck.

To date, only one person has made noises that might indicate he was considering following in their footsteps. Tom Saviello of Wilton, a former state senator who’s also a former Republican, independent, and Democrat, appeared ready to announce a gubernatorial bid earlier this summer, but then held off. Saviello said he wouldn’t decide whether to run until after this November’s vote on a citizen initiative outlawing the CMP corridor.

A big win at the ballot box for that proposal would signal there might be enough support for Saviello, who’s been a leader in the fight to get the measure on the ballot, as well as a party in court cases seeking to block the power-line project. He sports a moderate legislative record, and neither LePage nor Mills is especially fond of him.

Not the worst possible platform. Back it up with a few million bucks and some quirks of fortune, and there’s an outside chance it could produce a governor named None of the Above.

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